A story about a six-month investigation by ABC News on preacher predators in Protestant churches–including the Southern Baptist Convention–aired Friday on “20/20.”
While not interviewed on camera, EthicsDaily.com spoke off camera numerous times with the segment’s producer. EthicsDaily.com has carried dozens of stories and columns since last September about efforts by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) to pressure the SBC–the nation’s largest Protestant body–to establish an independent review board to help churches weed out clergy predators similar to one established five years ago in the Roman Catholic Church.
“Reading the thorough coverage of clergy sex abuse on EthicsDaily.com helped me tremendously in preparing our story here at ’20/20,'” ABC News producer Bonnie Vangilder said in an e-mail to this writer. “Thanks for talking to me extensively. You are exceptionally well-versed on this important topic.”
Brown said in a Webcast clip from the program that prior to her abuse as a 16-year-old girl by her Southern Baptist youth minister, everything in her life revolved around the church. “My one and only heart’s desire was to know God’s will and do God’s will,” she says. “What’s so terrible about this crime is that the weapon is the kid’s faith.”
Avila’s reporting found that the SBC–an organization of 43,000 independent churches and 16.3 million members–has an overall structure that makes it difficult to police preacher predators. One example includes a profile of an SBC pastor who abused kids in Kentucky and then moved on to do the same to eight boys in Missouri before he was finally sent to prison.
“20/20” listed numerous SBC preachers who have been convicted or charged with child sex abuse, including pastors still identified on the SBC’s own Web site as ordained ministers.
Avila also interviewed a preacher who admits, in his jobs as Southern Baptist preacher and teacher in East Texas, that he molested more than 40 boys. For the first time, Ken Ward spoke publicly about how he manipulated families and churches as he targeted and molested children in his care, and how the church is actually a magnet for predators. “I wanted them to love me and that was part of the strategy,” Ward told Avila.
Ward said that parents aren’t worrying about the right things. “The idea of a guy in the park with a trench coat on or driving by slowly trying to get a child … I’ve never even dreamed of doing that. … I’ve never touched a stranger,” he said.
Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., conceded there is a problem with tracking predators. Page and other SBC leaders say the convention’s doctrine of autonomy of the local church prevents them from the comprehensive approach recommended by SNAP.
On Thursday SNAP issued a press release reporting that Father Thomas Doyle, the priest and canon lawyer who first warned of the Catholic sex scandals of the mid-1980s, recently wrote SBC officials urging them to act now to better protect kids.
Doyle said he fears a pattern similar to what he saw in the Catholic Church may be developing in the SBC. “Clergy sex abuse is a scourge that knows no bounds of theology, denomination or institutional structure,” he wrote. “To effectively address this scourge requires a strong cooperative effort. Yet, in recent Baptist Press statements, I have seen that Southern Baptist leaders disclaim that possibility on the ground that the Southern Baptist Convention has ‘no authority’ over autonomous churches.”
While the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is different from the congregational structure of Baptists, Doyle said, the “no authority” argument is “actually quite analogous to what Catholic bishops were espousing prior to 2002.”
Doyle said bishops to a large degree consider themselves to have dominion over their own diocese. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described their creation of an Office of Child and Youth Protection as an “extraordinary and unprecedented” step.
“It would be a mistake to think that the structure of the Catholic Church inherently allowed for the creation of an oversight mechanism,” Doyle said. “Rather, it was the desperate need for a system of accountability that drove the creation of an oversight mechanism, and that mechanism was created outside the usual structure.”
“I have worked with a great many clergy abuse victims, and I know the horrible harm that it causes in their lives,” Doyle said. “I hope you will consider the possibility that, if children in Southern Baptist churches are to be made safer, accountability for Southern Baptist clergy may also need to be established ‘in a new way.'”
SBC President Frank Page responded to Doyle in a letter dated April 4, saying the denomination’s leaders are taking the issue seriously and reviewing how to better encourage and inform churches to protect children and young adults.
Page said while Catholic bishops claimed to have “no authority,” Southern Baptist leaders “truly have no authority over the local church.”
“We do have influence, and we are attempting to utilize that influence to the fullest extent to provide this protection,” Page wrote.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.